AUSTRALIA’S largest Pentecostal Christian church has denied any knowledge of child sex allegations against a predatory church youth leader who was jailed only days before the church was criticised in the child abuse royal commission final report.
Christopher Laban Bridge, 69, of Yarramalong – a prominent member of the Generation City Church at Hamilton - was jailed on December 13 for sexually assaulting four boys at Assemblies of God churches in Dubbo and the Hunter in the 1970s and 1980s.
He moved to the Hamilton church in the mid 1970s after a Dubbo victim’s parents reported Bridge’s sexual assaults to Dubbo Assemblies of God pastor, the late Jack Allsopp. No action was taken after the report, a court was told.
Australian Christian Churches (the former Assemblies of God) said it had no record of any child sexual abuse allegations against Bridge until 2014, despite a Hunter victim’s mother saying she told a senior church pastor in the early 1980s about her son’s description of explicit sex acts committed by Bridge.
“The first time the ACC movement was made aware of Christopher Bridge’s paedophile activities in the 1970s and 1980s was when a victim spoke of his experiences to an ACC pastor in October 2014,” a church spokesperson said on Wednesday.
But a Hunter victim backed his mother’s account, saying the failure of the senior church pastor to act had devastating consequences for him and his family.
“Bridge denied it and the pastor said he didn’t believe my brother. I felt I had no choice but to move on and pretend the abuse against me never happened because nobody would believe us. It wrecked my relationship with my brother,” the Hunter victim said.
His brother abused serious drugs, was jailed for a drug-related assault and died only days before their 30th birthday.
“My brother died and I suffered in silence for 30 years until I got a phone call from a detective, because we knew we wouldn’t be believed,” the victim said.
“It tears me to pieces that I didn’t speak back then. It’s still a huge regret of my life.”
He is outraged by a Federal Government proposal to deny compensation under the royal commission’s national redress scheme to child sex victims who have been jailed.
“That’s just another way of saying child sexual abuse doesn’t matter and doesn’t have consequences,” he said.
The victim and his mother were angry that Bridge was jailed for just three years for serious child sex offences because the court was required to sentence him according to the standards of the time.
In its statement the ACC said it had “rigorous policies and procedures in place” and was “committed to ensure that protection of children and youth is of highest priority”.
But the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse final report was critical of the ACC’s structure and procedures, after a public hearing into the handling of child sex allegations involving ACC’s flagship Hillsong Church.
The royal commission criticised the ACC’s grievance proceduring requiring child sex complaints to be made in writing, a process the commission found “gave priority to the protection of pastors over the safety of children”.
While the ACC had implemented a child protection policy and required adherence if churches wanted to remain affiliated, the commission found there was no formal audit process to check if churches and pastors were compliant.
The royal commission also heard the ACC had “no formal role in investigating” child sex allegations “because of the autonomy of local churches”.
It relied on local churches to take “appropriate action”.
The royal commission found the ACC, Hillsong Church and its pastor Brian Houston did not report child sex allegations against Mr Houston’s father, Frank Houston, to police or the NSW Commissioner for Children and Young People as required by legislation.
The royal commission found the child sexual abuse occurred.
Frank Houston’s victim told the commission he received “absolutely no support, counselling, apology or acknowledgement of the abuse”.
“I believe that Brian Houston and the other elders of Hillsong Church kept Pastor Frank’s history as quiet as they could and they have not been held accountable for how they handled my allegation,” the victim told the royal commission.
It found “inadequate” responses by ACC to child sex allegations because of “concern for reputation and avoidance of scandal, the autonomous nature of Pentecostal churches, the role of pastors in Pentecostal churches and the existence of conflicts of interest in Pentecostal churches”.
“Perhaps the most significant factor that affected institutional responses to allegations of child sexual abuse was the autonomous nature of Pentecostal churches, which meant that senior pastors had discretion about whether to adopt child protection policies, including in relation to the training, supervision and discipline of staff,” the royal commission found in its final report released two days after Christopher Bridge was sentenced.
Generation City Church Pastor Marty McCrindle said he was “shocked and saddened” when his former business partner, whom he met at a Hunter Christian cafe in 1979, was being investigated for child sexual abuse.
He said his church had “solid policies and procedures when it comes to the protection of children and young people”.
“I cannot comment on how such policies and procedures were followed by the church leadership when the said offences occurred in the 1970s and early 1980s as it appears that no documentation was made or kept by the then leadership of our church regarding Bridge,” Mr McCrindle said.